Rising natural gas prices hit businesses, residents

Josh Lawson is feeling the pinch.

The owner of Craig's Bad to the Bone restaurant has little choice but to run his natural gas powered grill to keep customers rolling in.

But as energy costs continue to rise, the restaurateur finds himself eating more and more of the profits.

"My (energy costs) have almost doubled," he said. "It's been very detrimental to the survival of my business."

In April, Atmos Energy increased rates 50 percent for residential and business customers. Starting Nov. 1, those customers may see another 10 to 15 percent increase in their bills, resulting in a possible 60 to 70 percent price hike in less than a year.

Atmos Energy distributes natural gas for 1.7 million customers in small to medium-sized communities in 12 states. Many Atmos customers live in Craig.

While April's increase may have gone mostly unnoticed because of the warming temperatures, those increases may become painfully evident as residents reach for their thermostats this winter.

"We're asking customers to really watch how they use natural gas this year," said Karen Wilkes, manager of public affairs for Atmos Energy. "The last thing we want is for customers to be surprised by the increases."

To try to recoup energy costs, Lawson has encouraged employees to reduce the heat on the restaurant's grill during non-peak hours. Yet just conserving energy won't solve the issue of higher bills.

"We can't change or restructure our menu to reflect the higher energy prices," he said. "In this economic downturn we feel the pressure to keep our prices low, but our costs are going up. It's very difficult for customers to understand that."

According to Bad to the Bone employee Jauneth Calim, the energy price hikes will affect how she keeps her home and young toddler warm this winter. Calim may chose to heat her home with a pellet stove instead of turning on the natural gas heat. But, she said, at about $3 for a bag of pellets, that option was also expensive.

"One bag only lasts through the night," she said. "I'll definitely go with the cheapest option."

Because of the price hikes, Calim said she'll try again this year to receive state assistance to pay for heating bills.

The LEAP (low-income energy assistance program) helped 415 residents in Moffat County pay for heating bills last year, said Self Sufficiency Manager Laura Willems of the county's Social Service Department.

"I think the requests will increase this year with energy costs going up," she said.

Residents who received assistance from LEAP last year will be mailed forms to reapply this year, Willems said. Other residents who use services offered by the department are automatically sent forms to reapply for assistance this year.

"It's not designed to pay for your bill, it's to help out," she said. "What people need to understand is they need to try to maintain bills."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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